The Florida Project (2017)
Dir. Sean Baker; Brooklynn Prince, Willem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite
[4 out of 4 stars]
Stories about young people present a particular difficulty for filmmakers. In a novel or short story, an author can write about a child or from their point of view without having to consider how difficult it may be to get a performer of the correct age to convey the story. The solution in movies, for decades, has been to cast older performers to effectively ‘play young’: Rachel McAdams was 28 when she was playing a high schooler in Mean Girls (2004). The problem only becomes heightened when a film proposes to tell the story of very young children, as performers of this age with the right talents have been historically difficult to come by. You roll the dice, but if you find a special cast, as has been the case with Stranger Things (2016-) and It (2017), the results are especially rewarding. Such is the case with Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (2017), his directorial follow-up to the much-talked-about Tangerine (2015).
Set during one summer among a collection of motels and strip malls in Kissimmee, Florida just outside Disney World, the film follows six-year old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Their playground is made up of the string of motels where they all live, and Moonee’s mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), leaves her daughter mostly unsupervised, a trend repeated by each of the children’s caretakers. Yet, they are not without someone to watch over them, as Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the manager of The Magic Castle, the motel where Moonee and Halley live, acts as a crusty guardian angel. The children and their families are part of the forgotten homeless, Americans who may have a roof over their heads week-to-week, but have no plans or prospects for long-term housing. Baker ushers the viewer into their world, taking an approach most comparable to Richard Linklater with Boyhood (2014), steeping us in the lives of his characters as closely to how they experience it as we can get. In fact, many of the supporting figures in the film are portrayed by actual residents of the motels, blending fact and fiction in this depiction of their daily lives.
Every decision that Baker makes in revealing this world contributes to the fact that it is a story about the children that populate it. His camera often sits lower than is conventional, following Moonee and her friends as they hide under the stairway at The Magic Castle, a place completely their own because no adult would comfortably fit underneath its arches. The setting itself takes on an almost surreal feel; the peeling lilac paint of The Magic Castle, the enormous fruit-shaped Orange World (a shop that we imagine specializes in orange related memorabilia) the kids meander past on their adventures, and the very existence of a street sign for ‘Seven Dwarfs Ln.’ suggest a child’s slightly mystified view of the world. It is as if Disney World spilled out from the confines of the park and expanded to fill the world around it, but grew only into a demystified image of its former self. Baker relishes the cognitive dissonance in how Disney lords over the narrative while only rarely directly entering in (Baker saves its full debut for a moment I won’t spoil).
In one of his most haunting images, Halley takes Moonnee and Jancey to the waterside to watch the park’s fireworks. They are far away; between them and the park are any number of motels and freeways. For a moment they sit in darkness, interrupted by the first explosion. Under a red-stained sky, the three sit celebrating Jancey’s birthday, but all I could think about was the sheer amount of distance the shot conveyed. Just beyond our view are a multitude of families sitting under the same fireworks, enjoying the privilege of their decadent vacation. Halley and the girls are well aware of them, but none of those within the park have any idea of what sits just outside their ‘magic kingdom,’ a fact that gave me a sense of profound sadness.
No story about children works without a talented child to anchor it, and the crackling ray of sunshine that is Brooklynn Prince does just that. Prince was only six at the time of filming, the same age as the character that she was playing, and the expressive range and performative talent she puts on display is truly remarkable. Giving a tour of The Magic Castle to Jancey, who lives at a neighboring motel, she tells her about each room, from the one with ‘the woman who thinks she’s married to Jesus’ to another with a man who ‘gets arrested a lot.’ Her delivery is natural and metered, with the wrist flicks and flourishes of an excited child showing off her world to someone new. It is shot through with genuine strokes that could easily seem forced, but never do. Baker recognizes what he has with Prince, and capitalizes on it. Near the end of the film, Halley sneaks the two into a ritzy hotel nearby to take advantage of the continental breakfast, and Baker settles his camera in close-up on Prince as she eats. She lists the foods she’s having, and talks about how ‘pregnant’ she’ll look after breakfast. It is equally adorable and heartbreaking, a young girl finding joy in what many of us may consider such a small thing. Prince captures the many strands of Moonee’s existence so expertly, she is a joy to watch.
Hovering over and accenting Prince’s performance, is the work turned in by Dafoe as Bobby. Throughout his career, Dafoe has made a name for himself playing memorable supporting roles that elevate the piece they are a part of. The Academy nominated him for his portrayal of the thoughtful and morally grounded Sgt. Elias in Platoon (1986), which brought empathy and humanism to the horrors of the Vietnam War. He was not the focus, but he so dominated each of his scenes that he is one of its most memorable parts. If it were not for the tour-de-force work that Prince delivered here, I believe the same would have held true. That withstanding, Dafoe permeates the story. The children may often see him as spoiling their good fun, but it is with a firm and caring hand that he steers them away from the greatest dangers that could befall them. At one moment, an older gentleman wanders onto the property and begins chatting with the children, who are innocently playing around a pair of picnic tables. Bobby is painting a new layer of yellow trim on the motel, but he notices this new figure, and it distracts him enough that he drops the can of paint. We feel his concern mount, and when he walks over to confront the man it is with a smile and a deference that shield the bubbling rage as we come to understand the sinister nature of this man’s intentions. Dafoe’s performance makes Bobby inseparable from the hotel, and his deep sadness in trying to help these children without being able to save them is palpable.
Watching The Florida Project for me was one of those rare cinematic experiences when I have to remind myself I’m glimpsing a fictional world. The care and precision with which Baker portrays this world is masterful, so that even with its seemingly heightened and carefully chosen details the world is so engrossing it’s easy to lose yourself within it. Each cast-member, with the standouts Prince and Dafoe, seem so deeply woven into this world that all of their motions and lines blend into a work of agonizing beauty. There can be no real fairy tale ending for these children, nor for their real life counterparts out in the world, but that does not preclude them from deserving a story of grace and humor.